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Abigail Pietrow

A Change in the Winds: El Niño and Penguins

Photograph of a beach with the sun about to set. In the horizon of the photo, you can just barely see a few penguins on the beach.

A Change in the Winds:
El Niño and Penguins

By Abigail Pietrow, Penguin Keeper

El Niño events are a naturally occurring climate phenomenon in Earth’s southern oceans. But, in the past, particularly strong El Niño events have spelled disaster for penguin colonies in the Southern Pacific. So, let’s take a look at what happens during these events and how they affect penguins.

El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Events

Upwelling currents off the western coastline of South America are driven by strong winds blowing westward from the continent. These winds drive a surface current flowing westward out towards the center of the Pacific Ocean. In turn, this current pulls cold, nutrient-rich water from deep in the ocean to the surface along this coastline. This cold water supports huge fish populations through the growth of phytoplankton when it interacts with sunlight at the surface, and these fish populations are important in supporting local fishermen and thriving populations of marine predators like seabirds and mammals!

Graphic of El Nino and La Nina surface temperature anomalies
Sea Surface Temperatures and Pressure Zones during El Niño, top (a), and La Niña, bottom (b).
Courtesy of NOAA

ENSO events represent a fluctuation in these winds. Think of a swing: it moves through a repetitive path from one side to the other reaching a peak at either end. Relating that to ENSO, El Niño represents one extreme and La Niña the other. In El Niño years, the westward-blowing winds are weaker than normal. This results in warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures and a reduction in upwelling along the coastline. During these events, fish populations often decline dramatically along the South American coastline, as there is less food available to support them. This causes challenges and competition between wildlife and fishermen for the remaining populations. 

Photograph of Magellanic Penguins by the water with glaciers in the background
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach

In La Niña years, the wind patterns swing in the opposite direction, and an even stronger upwelling effect is produced. This leads to larger than normal fish populations and very productive years for fishermen and wildlife in South America.

In Spanish “ El Niño” translates to “the boy,” and is a name given to this phenomenon by Peruvian fishermen in the 1800s. The name refers to the arrival of the warm surface waters off the western coast of South America in December, often around Christmastime. 

The Events of 1982-83 and 1997-98

Although El Niño events naturally occur every 2-7years, they’re not always consistent in the strength of their effect on ocean currents and conditions. In particular, the El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98 resulted in some of the strongest recorded ENSO effects in modern history. These weather events had destructive effects on penguin populations.

At the beginning of 1982, the population of Humboldt penguins in Peru was estimated to be between 6000-8000 individuals and struggling to recover after historical exploitation of guano and poaching of adults and chicks. The strong 1982-83 El Niño event and the resulting lack of food contributed to mass mortality of Humboldt penguins and widespread breeding failure during those years. Scientists recorded a population decline of 65% during this single event, leaving only 2100-3000 surviving adults in the Peruvian population as birds either died or dispersed elsewhere in an attempt to find food.

Likewise, the Galapagos penguin, one of the most endangered penguin species globally, is detrimentally affected in many of the same ways. Though they live in the equatorial Galapagos, they rely just as heavily on upwelling currents in that area to support fish populations. The El Niño of 1982-83 led to a recorded population decline of 77% and the El Niño of 1997-98 resulted in a decline of 65%. Even after 6 years of recovery in 2004, the total population was estimated to only be 50% of what it was pre-1982.

El Niño Today

When we talk about the widespread effects of a changing climate on penguins, it reaches much further than glaciers melting in Antarctica. As global climate change progresses, it is difficult for scientists to predict how this will affect the strength and frequency of El Niño events, but many agree that increases in one or both of those factors are likely.  Either stronger or more frequent events, as some have predicted, could have devastating impacts on the populations of several already threatened or endangered penguin species in South America, especially as competition with humans for limited food sources continue.

© Abigail Pietrow 2021

Abigail Pietrow is a penguin keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of the Aquarium of Niagara.

It’s wild how natural phenomena are so interconnected with wildlife. Did you know that wind patterns could affect penguin populations? Help us to learn more and protect wild penguins through research and education by donating to Penguins International!

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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References:

Chile’s Humboldt penguins under threat of extinction (2013, April 28) retrieved 01 January 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2013-04-chile-humboldt-penguins-threat-extinction.html 

El Niño. (n.d.) Retrieved January 01, 2021, from http://penguinworld.net/our-mission/conservation/el-nino/

Hays, Coppelia. (1986) Effects of the 1982-82 El Niño on Humboldt Penguin Colonies in Peru. Biological Conservation 36: 169-180.

Vargas, F. Hernán, S. Harrison, S. Rea, D. W. Macdonald. (2006) Biological effects of El Niño on the Galápagos penguin. Biological Conservation 127: 107-114

What is El Niño? (n.d.) Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/elnino/what-is-el-nino

World Penguin Day: Penguin Conservation Status

Illustration of all 18 penguin species in a row.

World Penguin Day: Penguin Conservation Status

By Abigail Pietrow, Penguin Keeper

April 25th is World Penguin Day! As we celebrate these wonderful and fascinating flightless birds on this day, let’s check in with how the 18 different species are doing.

Conservation status for each species is noted in terms of its International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List designation.

Image of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List designation.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List designation. Photo credit: https://www.iucnredlist.org
Photograph of an Adelie Penguin looking at the camera.
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach

Adelie Penguin

The Adelie Penguin is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List. Their populations were feared to be decreasing until a previously unknown “supercolony” consisting of an estimated 1.5 million individuals was discovered on remote Antarctic islands in 2018. Surprisingly, these birds were located in part due to the discovery of huge guano stains on NASA satellite imagery.

African Penguin

The IUCN Red List considers the African Penguin to be in the “Endangered” category. Populations have declined by almost 65% since 1989 due to a number of different threats like oil spills and overfishing of food sources by humans. Small victories have been noted in recent years, such as the designation of Robben Island, historically an important breeding island for the species, as a protected marine site in 2019. Organizations like the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) work tirelessly to help the survival of this species.

Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap Penguins are currently listed as “Least Concern.” New research published in 2020 reported the results of one of the first censuses of Chinstrap colonies since the 1970s. They reported decreases of up to 50% at some of the colony sites studied. As with other penguin species, increased monitoring of populations could be very useful in helping scientists paint a more accurate picture of how these species are coping with various challenges in their environment.

Photograph of Chinstrap Penguin looking at the camera.
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach
Photograph of Emperor Penguins walking on sea ice.
Source: Penguins International
Photo Library

Emperor Penguin

Perhaps the most well known of all penguin species, the Emperor Penguin is designated as “Near Threatened.” Currently, the population trend of this species is fairly stable, but their reproductive strategy and natural history is linked to the seasonal sea ice of Antarctica. Predictive modeling suggests that over the course of the next century, climate change will effect the formation of Antarctic sea ice enough to significantly imperil this species.

Erect-Crested Penguin

This little-known species breeds on only two groups of islands off of the coast of New Zealand, is possibly one of the least-studied penguins species in the world, and is listed as “Endangered.” Studies conducted indicate rapid decline over the last 50 years but surveys have been limited to only portions of the island groups and may not be wholly reliable estimates.

Fiordland Penguin

Also known as “Tawaki” (in Māori) in their native range of New Zealand, the Fiordland penguin is considered “Near Threatened.” When these penguins are not nesting in tangled rainforest, they complete massive migrations of up to 7,000km to search for food prior to the molting season.

Galapagos Penguin

The smallest of the Banded Penguins and the northernmost of all penguin species, the Galapagos Penguin is designated as “Endangered.” El Niño events have severely affected populations of this penguin over the last 50 years.  Predictive modeling of El Niño patterns has described a 30% chance of extinction for this species within the next century.

Gentoo Penguin

The Gentoo Penguin is noted as “Least Concern.” These plucky birds may actually be the penguin “winners” of climate change – as their Sub-Antarctic populations have stabilized in recent years, their Antarctic populations are seeing massive increases. Recent genetic and physical evidence has been uncovered suggesting that the Gentoo Penguin, while currently split into two subspecies, would be more accurately described as four separate species! It’s up to the scientific community now to analyze the merits of this assessment.

Photograph of two Gentoo Penguins, both penguins are facing to the side of the camera.
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach

Humboldt Penguin

Classified as “Vulnerable,” surveys of Humboldt Penguin populations over the last several decades have revealed considerable uncertainty in past population estimates. However, we do know that this species is heavily affected by El Niño events, which massively decrease available food and cause widespread mortality and breeding failure.

Photograph of two King Penguins on the grass. One penguin is facing the camera and the other is to the side.
Source: Penguins International Photo Library

King Penguin

The King Penguin is the second-largest species behind its cousin, the Emperor Penguin. King Penguins are listed as “Least Concern,” but fairly recent studies have showed wildly different population trends in different parts of their range. According to a 2018 study on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, King Penguins have seen a remarkable recovery over the last century after severe historical exploitation for their oil. In the same year, another study was published detailing an 88% decline in the population of this species at a colony in the Crozet Islands.

Little Penguin

The smallest species of penguin is designated as “Least Concern” as populations are stable in most locations. However, these tiny birds remain highly vulnerable to human threats such as coastal development, death by domestic pets, invasive and introduced species, and human disturbance at nesting colonies. Sites without active protection have declined severely over time.

Macaroni Penguin

Macaroni Penguins are classified as “Vulnerable.” Though some local populations are stable, overall global populations are steadily decreasing. Macaroni Penguins are an incredible example of these flightless seabirds inhabiting some pretty extreme environments as one breeding island is actually the summit of an underwater volcano and has erupted multiple times since the 1990s!

Photograph of two Magellanic Penguins in their burrow.
Source: Penguins International
Photo Library

Magellanic Penguin

The Magellanic Penguin is listed as “Least Concern,” populations trends are varied across their range. Penguin populations continue to keep scientists on their toes; in 2020 a previously unknown colony of Magellanic Penguins was discovered, hidden among a nesting colony of Rockhopper Penguins that was being surveyed.

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

The Northern Rockhopper, found on Sub-Antarctic Islands off the southern coastline of Africa is considered “Endangered.” The splitting of the Rockhoppers into two distinct species is a fairly recent occurrence, with evidence presented by Jouventin et al. in 2006. The Northern Rockhopper remains the less studied of the two species, though human exploitation likely played a part in historical declines and current declines continue in present day populations.

Royal Penguin

The Royal Penguin is “Near Threatened,” and is only found in one population around Macquarie Island south of New Zealand. The population seems to have recovered from historical exploitation though the last substantial survey of the species occurred in 1985.

Snares Penguin

The Snares Penguin is listed as “Vulnerable” due to its inhabitation of only a single group of islands south of New Zealand, the Snares Islands. While the population of the Snares Penguin is currently stable, with the entire population condensed in such a small area the species vulnerable to be widely effected by a single catastrophic event.

Photo of two Snares Penguins rubbing their bills together.
Photo from Macaulay Library
https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/293151181

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

Southern Rockhopper Penguins encompass two subspecies, and together are considered “Vulnerable.” While there is evidence that populations are reproducing at high enough rates to stabilize themselves, several mass mortality events in recent decades, most lately in 2016, have continued to damage populations and delay recovery of the species. These mortality events, while still not fully understood, are thought to be linked to food shortages that accompany fluctuations in sea surface temperature.

Photograph of Yellow-eyed Penguin in tall grass.
Source: Penguins International
Photo Library

Yellow-eyed Penguin

The Yellow-Eyed Penguin is the only extant species in its genus, and it designated as “Endangered.” Known in the Māori language as the “Hoiho,” the Yellow-eyed Penguin is native to the coasts and coastal island of southern New Zealand. Today is it one of the rarest penguins in the world with an estimated population of less than 3,000 mature individuals. Total declines in this species over the past 30 years estimated are to be between 50-75%. Organizations dedicated to their recovery, like the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, work closely to conserve and study this unique species, and restore suitable habitat for them throughout their range.

If you are curious to learn more about each of these penguin species, visit our penguin species page or click on the name of the penguin species listed above.

Check out our blog to learn about what actions you can take to preserve these iconic species! Consider donating to Penguins International to support our education and conservation efforts.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

© Abigail Pietrow 2021

Abigail Pietrow is a penguin keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of the Aquarium of Niagara.

Sources:

Baker, A. (2020, February 11). Climate Change is Decimating Antarctic Chinstrap Penguins. Retrieved January 08, 2021, from https://time.com/5781302/climate-change-is-decimating-the-chinstrap-penguins-of-antarctica/

BirdLife International. 2020. Aptenodytes forsteriThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697752A157658053. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697752A157658053.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Aptenodytes patagonicusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697748A184637776. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697748A184637776.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Eudyptes chrysocomeThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22735250A182762377. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22735250A182762377.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Eudyptes chrysolophusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697793A184720991. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697793A184720991.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Eudyptes moseleyiThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22734408A184698049. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22734408A184698049.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Eudyptes pachyrhynchusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697776A182279725. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697776A182279725.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2018. Eudyptes robustusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697782A132602343. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22697782A132602343.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2018. Eudyptes schlegeliThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697797A132603136. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22697797A132603136.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Eudyptes sclateriThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697789A131879000. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697789A131879000.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Eudyptula minorThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697805A184753545. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697805A184753545.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Megadyptes antipodesThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697800A182703046. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697800A182703046.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Pygoscelis adeliaeThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697758A157660553. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697758A157660553.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Pygoscelis antarcticusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697761A184807209. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697761A184807209.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Pygoscelis papuaThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697755A157664581. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697755A157664581.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Spheniscus demersusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697810A157423361. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697810A157423361.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Spheniscus humboldtiThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697817A182714418. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697817A182714418.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Spheniscus magellanicusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697822A157428850. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697822A157428850.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

BirdLife International. 2020. Spheniscus mendiculusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697825A182729677. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697825A182729677.enDownloaded on 07 January 2021.

Clucas, Gemma & Dunn, M. & Dyke, Gareth & Emslie, Steven & Levy, Hila & Naveen, Ron & Polito, Michael & Pybus, Oliver & Rogers, Alex & Hart, Tom. (2014). A reversal of fortunes: Climate change ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in Antarctic Peninsula penguins. Scientific reports. 4. 5024. 10.1038/srep05024.

De Lazaro, E. (2020, January 21). Researchers Discover New Colony of Magellanic Penguins. Retrieved January 07, 2021, from http://www.sci-news.com/biology/colony-magellanic-penguins-08034.html

Foley, Catherine & Hart, T. & Lynch, H.. (2018). King Penguin populations increase on South Georgia but explanations remain elusive. Polar Biology. 41. 10.1007/s00300-018-2271-z.

Hays, Coppelia. (1986) Effects of the 1982-82 El Niño on Humboldt Penguin Colonies in Peru. Biological Conservation 36: 169-180.

Joshua Tyler, Matthew T. Bonfitto, Gemma V. Clucas, Sushma Reddy, Jane L. Younger. Morphometric and genetic evidence for four species of gentoo penguin. Ecology and Evolution, 2020 DOI: 10.1002/ece3.6973

Jouventin, P., Cuthbert, R. J., and Ottvall, R. (2006). Genetic isolation and divergence in sexual traits: evidence for the northern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes moseleyi being a sibling species. Molecular Ecology 15, 3413–3423. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2006.03028.x

Mattern T, Pütz K, Garcia-Borboroglu P, Ellenberg U, Houston DM, et al. (2018) Marathon penguins – Reasons and consequences of long-range dispersal in Fiordland penguins / Tawaki during the pre-moult period. PLOS ONE 13(8): e0198688. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198688

Morgenthaler, A., E. Frere, A. Raya Rey, C. Torlaschi, P. Cedrola, E. Tiberi, R. Lopez, E. Mendieta, M. L. Carranza, S. Acardi, N. Collm, P. Gandini, A. Millones. (2018) Unusual number of Southern Rockhopper Penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome, molting and dying along the Southern Patagonian coast of Argentina: pre-molting dispersion event related to adverse oceanographic conditions? Polar Biology 41(5): 1041-1047. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-018-2264-y

Philip N. Trathan, B. Wienecke, C. Barbraud, S.Jenouvrier, G. Kooyman, C. Le Bohec, D.G. Ainley, A. Ancel, D.P. Zitterbart, S. L. Chown, M. LaRue, R. Cristofari, J. Younger, G. Clucas, C-A Bost, J. A. Brown, H. J. Gillett, P. T. Fretwell. (2020) The emperor penguin – Vulnerable to projected rates of warming and sea ice loss.

Biological Conservation 241: 108216

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108216.https://theconversation.com/robben-island-joins-list-of-20-new-protected-marine-sites-in-south-africa-118794

Previously unknown ‘supercolony’ of 1.5 million penguins discovered in Antarctica. (2018, March 02). Retrieved January 08, 2021, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/antarctica-penguins-supercolony-adelie-climate-change-unknown-discovered-danger-islands-a8236121.html

Sherley, RB,  Crawford, RJM,  de Blocq, AD, et al.  The conservation status and population decline of the African penguin deconstructed in space and timeEcol Evol.  2020108506– 8516https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6554

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Vargas, F.H., Lacy, R.C., Johnson, P.J., Steinfurth, A., Crawford, R.J.M., Boersma, P.D. and Macdonald, D.W. 2007. Modelling the effects of El Niño on the persistence of small populations: the Galápagos Penguin as a case study. Biological Conservation 137(1): 138-148.

Weimerskirch, H., Le Bouard, F., Ryan, P., & Bost, C. (2018). Massive decline of the world’s largest king penguin colony at Ile aux Cochons, Crozet. Antarctic Science 30(4): 236-242. Doi:10.1017/S0954102018000226

Can Penguins Smell?

Gentoo Penguin

Can Penguins Smell?

By Abigail Pietrow, Penguin Keeper

There are lots of common questions that I’m often asked as a Penguin Keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara:Can Penguins Breathe Underwater?”  “What do penguins eat?”Why are penguins black and white?” It sometimes seems like the curiosity directed towards our flightless feathered friends is endless, but is generally directed towards some common topics from day to day. I was surprised this past week by an uncommon question that came from two different individuals within the span of a couple of days: Can penguins smell? In order to answer that question I had to do a little digging, and what I found was pretty interesting!

What do seabirds smell?

Up until the mid-1900s it was widely assumed that birds did not have a sense of smell. This belief was based on the results of a few small studies, differences in nasal anatomy, and the fact that the olfactory bulb in most bird species (the organ in the brain responsible for the sense of smell) was much smaller than that of mammals when examined. More recently, scientists specifically studying this sense in birds have uncovered a very different truth – many birds have a well-developed sense of smell.

Tube-nosed seabirds in particular (Order Procellariiformes), like Albatrosses and Shearwaters, have highly developed olfactory systems. These systems are tuned to search out dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a very particular compound released when krill consume phytoplankton. Krill is an important food source for many seabirds, and following the scent trail of this compound can help these birds locate patches of food in the vast distances of the open ocean.

Consequences of DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide) Sensitivity in Birds

Unfortunately, feasting krill are not the only source of DMS in our oceans today. Plastic and micro-plastic pollution in our oceans is an ever-increasing environmental issue. An analysis performed in 2015 extrapolated that if pre-existing plastic ingestion studies from 1962-2012 were conducted under current oceanic conditions, then the percentage of seabirds surveyed with plastic in their digestive system would likely be closer to 90% compared to the 29% from previous decades.

It has been theorized in the past that the basis for this phenomenon is primarily visual – that plastic is eaten when it is mistaken for prey species while foraging.

A study conducted in 2016 sought to investigate other explanations for why seabirds ingest so much plastic debris. They tested the three most common types of plastic found in marine debris and found that after only one month in the ocean, these samples were coated in a biological film that produced DMS at a level detectable by tube-nosed seabirds. Their results suggest that part of the reason seabirds are eating so much plastic is because it smells like food to them too!

Sense of Smell in Penguins

Tube-nosed seabirds are generally considered to be some of the closest living relatives to modern penguins. While these evolutionary relationships are still under investigation, penguins do share some of the same adaptations for smell as other seabirds. African Penguins have been shown to have a similar sensitivity to DMS, as well as being attracted by the scent of this compound both on land and at sea.

They posses a single nostril called a “nare” on either side of their beak, and while their olfactory bulbs are relatively small compared to other seabirds, the organ is still larger than many land-based bird species. This reduction in size is paired with a reduction in the amount of olfactory receptor genes in their DNA and likely a reduced sense of smell compared to other waterbirds. However, some scientists hypothesize that this reduction in reliance on smell correlates with evolution of other adaptations penguins developed to hunt effectively under the surface like spherical lenses and flattened corneas for improved underwater vision.

Sniffing out Friends and Family

Penguins may also use their sense of smell for another important task. While many have now studied how birds can use their sense of smell for important functions like navigation and foraging, one fascinating study looked at how Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) might use their sense of smell to recognize mates or family members.

The scientists used oil samples from the preen gland of penguins to test whether individuals reacted differently to the scent of unfamiliar penguins than they did to family or neighbors.  They found that the studied penguins preferentially investigated unfamiliar and non-kin smells when presented with a choice. This could have implications for how penguins avoid inbreeding when choosing a mate in their natal colony!

What action can you take?

While penguins seem to be less likely to ingest plastic at the same rate as other seabird species, ingestion is not the only risk that plastic pollution in our oceans poses. Plastic entanglement is an issue facing many marine species, penguins included.

African Penguin entangled in discarded plastic.
Source: Avery, 2018.

Reducing your use of single-use plastics is one of the most effective ways to reduce your plastic footprint and helps keep plastic out of the world’s landfills and oceans! Instead of single-use items, reusable alternatives can be a planet-friendly way to make a difference for wildlife!

© Abigail Pietrow 2020

Abigail Pietrow is a penguin keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of the Aquarium of Niagara.

Did you know that penguins could smell? Let us know in the comments what you found most interesting! Please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

References

Coffin, H R, J V Watters, J M Mateo. 2011. Odor-based recognition of familiar and related conspecifics: a first test conducted on captive humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti). PLoS ONE 6(9): e25002. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025002

Dell’Ariccia, G., Phillips, R. A., Van Franeker, J. A., Gaidet, N., Catry, P., Granadeiro, J. P., … & Bonadonna, F. (2017). Comment on “Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds” by Savoca et al. Science advances, 3(6), e1700526.

Lu, Q. et al. 2016. Penguins reduced olfactory receptor genes common to other waterbirds. Sci. Rep. 6, 31671; doi: 10.1038/srep31671

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